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Live review: Phoenix at the Greek Theatre

September 17, 2009 |  3:54 pm


The French guitar-pop act Phoenix is a small band that, in the course of doing many little things right, has somehow become a very big one. After the success of the band's fizzy, fantastically named album "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" this year, its set at the Greek Theatre on Wednesday night fulfilled the ambitions of mainstreaming indie rock.

It's no mean feat to get thousands of very non-Continental fans to shimmy to meticulous, synth-besotted tunes with lyrics about Franz Liszt. But Phoenix is so casually precise in its pop that its pleasures have a way of sneaking up on just about anyone.

There are various bullet points one must mention when talking about Phoenix. Singer Thomas Mars has a child with director Sofia Coppola, the group had a breakthrough with the tune "Too Young" in her film "Lost in Translation," and they are probably the best-dressed band in rock today. If any performers are wearing scarves and guitars better, they're keeping a low profile.

None of that seemed terribly relevant, though, as the group demonstrated its transformation into an unlikely yet very welcome arena rock act.

Although the joys of Phoenix have long been kind of nerdy -- its best asset is its production, the synth pads building in the back of a song, the gentle, funky guitars as tight as a well-made bed -- the band took that aspect of its sound and successfully managed to translate it on a very big stage.

"1901," which is built on a massive, ravey synthesizer stab, and "Lisztomania," with its sock-hop eagerness, benefited from the widescreen setting. But the big surprise was how immersive slower cuts such as "Fences" and "Girlfriend" proved. Few artists understand how to imbue a midtempo song with kinetic energy; at the Greek, Phoenix performed deep album tracks and made them seem surprising.

Onstage, Mars has refined his lanky twirl into a genuine dance move, while the three other Phoenix principles -- Laurent Brancowitz, Christian Mazzalai and Deck D'Arcy -- adeptly swapped between guitars, bass and keyboards as  the set shifted from big  rock numbers to ambient electronic smears.

Even more demure early tunes such as "If I Ever Feel Better" felt sauntering and potent. Phoenix's dizzying, mod lighting design (an underrated thing for a rock band to think about) might have helped amplify that effect, or perhaps it was the addition of a touring drummer so wildly physical in his playing that he threatened to steal the show.

No matter how they went about it, the Frenchmen managed to take relatively intimate, highbrow thrills and give them a welcoming, populist spin.

Hopefully, the night's openers Metric were listening closely. The Canadian quartet has a fine new album of arty electro-rock in "Fantasies," but in the live arena, the band gets by on the sheer charisma of frontwoman Emily Haines.

She's a tiny hurricane onstage, and urgent cuts such as "Sick Muse" and "Gimme Sympathy" warranted that energy. Still, it wasn't quite enough to fill out a relatively spare-sounding set.

San Diego's the Soft Pack had a better time of it, delivering sun-dazed surf-punk, Cramps style. Given that so many of the act's noisy, barely competent peers have won undue praise from critics, it was refreshing to see a pleasantly aggressive California band sound trashy but purposeful.

-August Brown

Photo by Christine Cotter / LAT